The State Is Not Meant To Regulate Speech: Watch Professor Partha Chatterjee’s lecture on ‘azaadi’

By Scroll Staff – March 23, 2016

After a series of lectures on nationalism, the Jawaharlal Nehru University is conducting a series on “azaadi”.

In the first lecture of the series (video above), noted political science professor Partha Chatterjee speaks about freedom – first, of the individual, and then, of the collective. He also covers the history of the sedition law which has its origins in India’s colonial government.

He starts by stating that freedom is not absolute, that there are natural restrictions to what one can or cannot do. In terms of speech, he says, what one can say differs, depending on the company. So what a group of boys can discuss may be unacceptable in mixed company, or what can be said amongst friends cannot be shared with colleagues.

It is, however, not the state’s job to regulate conversations. On the contrary, Chatterjee says, it is the state’s duty to protect an individual’s freedom if he approaches the state.

“In a constitutional democracy when there is a question of freedom of speech, of freedom of movement, of freedom of association – any of these freedoms that are guaranteed under Article 19 – the default position of the state must always be to protect individual freedom… If it does not then it is no longer a Constitutional democracy, it becomes tyranny. That is in fact the definition of tyranny, where the state does not protect individual freedoms.”

To illustrate the point of self-regulation, Chatterjee says, “In Parliament or in state Assemblies what can or cannot be said is regulated by Parliament itself or the state Assembly itself. Not even the courts can decide. That is understood as ‘Parliamentary privilege’. I would claim that universities should also have a similar status… I think it is completely not only wrong but impertinent for state authorities to decide what can or cannot be said in a university.”

On the matter of collective freedom, freedom pertaining to an entire group, Chatterjee says it is actually difficult to contain within a strictly liberal understanding of the Constitution. But that “there are certain kind of collective rights that historically have been recognised, and the most obvious one is the question of national self government or national self determination.” And, he adds, some individual freedoms have their foundation in the collective pursuit of those freedoms.

Chatterjee also cites the division of Indian states along linguistic lines. Although this was earlier believed to be a threat to national unity, this was proved unfounded, and it has become the foundation for the division of states into smaller units.

As for being anti-national, Chatterjee says, “There is really no Constitutional body or Constitutional provision which declares any kind of renegotiation of the terms of the Constitution of the state as unconstitutional. We have been told recently that somehow the Constitution is inviolable, no question can be raised about it. It is a peculiar claim to make because if that is so then no amendment to the Constitution would be possible…”

“The claim that is being made today,” he adds, “is not so much that there is a threat of any kind of break up of the country. What is being claimed by the ruling party is that we will define what is the content of national, and we will identify people who will be put the test of proving that they are not anti-national.”

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